High Society (1956)
Just a short 16 years following the Grant-Hepburn-Stewart classic, The Philadelphia Story, from director George Cukor came this musical rendition utilizing the star power of Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra assuming the roles of 1940’s big three.
Rather than compare the film that won Jimmy Stewart his one and only Oscar for Best Actor with this version from director Charles Walter, let’s focus on the musical version that sees Bing and Frank sharing a song or two with Louis Armstrong joining in on the fun.
Armstrong kicks things off with a rendition of the title song, High Society, as he and his band are headed to the palatial estate belonging to Crosby for a jazz festival. Crosby is playing a songwriter who just happens to be a smooth singer on the side. At the estate just next to Bing’s is the family home of Grace Kelly who just happens to be Bing’s ex. She’s prepping for a wedding gala. One where she’ll be exchanging vows with John Lund who’s been relegated to the Ralph Bellamy role once removed.
While Grace harbors resentment against her ex-hubby, Bing, her little sister played by Lydia Reed has a crush on the musical icon and would like nothing better than to see Grace and Bing patch things up and remarry. Bing himself is in total agreement as he’s still stuck on Princess Grace and fully intends to show up at the wedding, “I expect to pitch a little rice on the side.” Needing a plot device to get Frank into the script, Grace’s uncle played by Louis Calhern invites Spy Magazine to attend the wedding for a photo shoot and feature in an upcoming edition. Paging writer Frank Sinatra and his trusty gal Friday, Celeste Holm.
That makes 4 Oscar winners turning up in this jazzy redux. Bing for Going My Way, Celeste for Gentleman’s Agreement, Frank for From Here To Eternity and Grace for the recent Country Girl (opposite Bing).
One look at Grace and Sinatra gets caught up in her beauty but isn’t so sure about her sanity. Grace isn’t exactly overjoyed that Spy Magazine has turned up on her doorstep but she’ll come around to liking Frank and Celeste before long dropping the eccentric act she’s been putting on. Poor John Lund keeps being pushed further into the backdrop with Frank in the house and Bing hanging around the edges of the property. We’ll even get a flashback to happier times between Bing and Grace with a song for good measure. There’s a great line in here from Grace considering what the future held in store for this cinematic beauty, “I don’t want to worshipped. I want to be loved.”
Speaking of songs, the highlight of the film for me isn’t the well timed duet that sees Frank and Bing musically sparring but that of Bing belting out the tune, That’s Jazz, accompanied by Armstrong and his band. Feast your eyes…..
Still to come is the champagne flowing heavily, the Bing-Frank duet and Sinatra’s falling for (not from) Grace. The morning after is going to leave some questionable indiscretions and hangovers. Has Grace spent the night with Sinatra on the eve of her wedding? Is Lund going to forgive the supposed transgression with Ol’ Blue Eyes? Is Bing going to slide right on in and reclaim the woman he still carries a torch for? Well I guess if you’ve seen the original black and white edition you’ll already have the final reel figured out. If not then maybe give each version a look.
One thing we can be sure of with this rendition of the play originally written by Philip Barry is that Louis Armstrong is going to jazz things up for the fade out with some hip and swinging music.
Plenty of connections can be made here with the first being the re-teaming of Bing and Grace. They’d just scored a major success starring in 1954’s The Country Girl that gave Kelly her Oscar and scored a nomination for Bing in a straight dramatic role with no hint of a Bob Hope barb. Sinatra and Holm had starred opposite each other in The Tender Trap for director Walters just prior to this release. Walters directed a number of musicals. Among them, Easter Parade, Summer Stock and The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
I’ve always looked upon this film as a passing of the torch from Bing to Frank when it comes to the history of music but not having lived through the era I’m not sure if that’s how it was looked upon at the time. Truth is I prefer Bing over Frank from a singing standpoint. Don’t get me wrong. I still like Frank’s singing but prefer Bing’s if given a choice. Frank would take a cameo in Bing’s final Road picture to Hong Kong and Bing would make an appearance in the Rat Pack’s Robin and the Seven Hoods two years late in 1964.
High Society proved to be the final film in the careers of both Grace Kelly and Louis Calhern. She famously married into royalty thus retiring from the screen while Louis Calhern died suddenly on location in Japan while filming The Teahouse of the August Moon. His role was recast Paul Ford.
With music credited to Cole Porter and Bing, Frank and Louis carrying the tunes, this one’s well worth a look even if it didn’t win any Oscars compared to the two wins ( Stewart and David Ogden Stewart’s screenplay) and four nominations The Philadelphia Story received back in 1940. Looking for a copy of this splashy MGM release? Shouldn’t be too hard to find on DVD as part of a Frank Sinatra series that Warner Brothers released to home video.